Buying good tools cheap #1 – Introduction

Buying good tools at old prices

There are many ways you can buy hand tools and related equipment, new or secondhand, and end up with really good results that will equal the best at a fraction of the cost. My blogs have alluded to this over the past year or two, and here are the nuts and bolts of buying secondhand or new. In my experience, secondhand markets seem to me inexhaustible because so many were made and even with the current uptrend in hand tool work, there will always be tools cycling through for decades to come as long as tool prices are better than scrap metal and recycled raw metal prices.

Secondhand or new

I have wanted to put together a truly practical and inexpensive tool kit for hand tool woodworkers to garnish from places such as eBay and secondhand markets like garage sales, car boot venues and flleamarkets. Some tools are better new than secondhand and will likely cost you less than secondhand. EBay will usually prove the cheapest option with the largest range of supplier possibilities including on line stores, catalog companies, online magazines and secondhand options. Sometimes I may give two or three possibilities or options for the same tool, depending on choices such as maker/manufacturer, importer, tool quality and much more. If a tool lacks finish quality, but delivers accuracy, I will likely suggest the cheaper option. If a tool delivers accuracy for a season but is likely to eventually lose its accuracy because of the materials used over the years, I will likely still suggest the cheaper option. This is based on the buy-better-later-and-get-started-now principle rather than postponing the start. The choice will of course be yours. Those that have the money and are willing to pay high prices can shop elsewhere. This series is not meant for this group of people. Cost with accuracy are the two primary factors here. Following my my blog, current and future YouTube videos, and so on you can garner the exact information to restore, sharpen and fine tune the tools ready to begin really fine woodworking. You will also be able to ask me via email or comments section and I will always answer your questions or address your concerns there.

Price averaging

At the start of each tool article, I will go back through my purchases of the past year, total the amounts paid for particular tools, and give the average price I paid for each tool type. For instance I have purchased thirty #4 Stanley planes. I have also purchased each of the tools in the kit in the last month and will give the price I paid for each individual tool. I am looking for certain things that determine which tool I bid on or buy. This I will pass on to you. The criteria may differ with each tool type. For instance, I am not necessarily always looking for a new or should I say unused tool, often the exact opposite. Most old saws are better than new ones and can equally match the very best being made today. The same is true of planes, spokeshaves and so on. They are unlikely to be sharp and set or adjusted well and they may need serious help beyond that too, but I am of the opinion that I can teach just about anyone to define and shape teeth on any saw or set tup their plane and spokeshave, cabinet scraper or whatever in around one hour. Subsequent sharpenings will take much less because from here on you will stay on top of all the saws you own.

This applies to new tools too

Though I intend this to help poorer woodworkers and those who want to be frugal or recycle old tools, most of the information can indeed be applied to new tools regardless of the maker or the quality of the tools. You may want to adapt a new handsaw by reshaping teeth, and, of course, soon after purchasing an expensive saw they need sharpening as much as a secondhand one.

I will begin with the most important tool in any woodworkers tool kit and then take each tool in  turn. I am looking for longevity as primary need, quality I can obtain from using them also, but more than that I am looking for tools that guarantee me the ability to produce absolute accuracy no matter the tool.


  1. Looking forward to reading this series Paul. Hopefully monies saved can go towards a NL course.

  2. Thank you very much, Paul. I’m a poor woodworker and I will follow your poast with a lot of interst. Ilike and agree with the principle buy-better-later.

  3. Sounds like another interesting series to follow, I’m buying old and secondhand to try and build up a handtool kit. PS will there be any more videos in the workbench series?

    1. I think that that’s the way everyone will go ultimately. Yes there was a problem with one of the videos and we are working it out. As soon as we have it fixed we will post the remaining in the series.

  4. Hi Paul, I will definetly be following this series. I told my wife my planes of wood working with simple hand tools and she laughed and ask, “Isn’t it faster to use power tools like Norm from the new Yankie work shop?” I answered, “might be… when can I go buy those kind of tools?” I think she is on board with my plans now. I was at our local harware store today, and was looking at some new planes. I know many are not happy with Stanley, what about Buck Brothers? I haven’t heard much about their planes. I was looking at the construction of these brass planes and thought, I wonder if you can re-retro fit a block plane into a rabbet plane, or a dovetail or any type of plane you might need? I am new to hand planes and spoke shaves, so I might be off track with these questions. Remember everyone starts at the beggining.

    1. Welcome to real woodworking and a whole world.
      Don’t know who said anything against a Stanley but it was probably the best invention in hand planing using all metal planes ever. There are prettier planes, more innovative planes , nice to admire planes, nicer to look at planes made from all types of wood and metals, even bone, ebony and ivory or rosewood, but, when it comes to a fully functioning no-frills working plane, I can do more with my Stanley’s than just about any other maker. Buy wwith absolute surety…these planes are top notch and within an hour even a poorly kept Stanley will produce shavings as good as any thick-ironed, heavyweight plane.
      Buck Brothers? I am not sure. I thought about buying one when I am back there so I may do that just to see. Woodcraft touted their sale of an imported Indian plane they stock as being a quality plane as they were offering them on sale, but when a friend ordered his it was one of the very worst planes imaginable. I have known this maker since the early 60′ and they never produced a quality plane ever that I know of.
      retrofitting planes seems always to result in a shortfall of the quality you need for accurate work. Almost all pre 90’s Stanley planes are lifetime daily use planes. You cannot wear them out. Avoid almost all plastic handled versions or be prepared to retrofit them with wooden ones. These handles fracture in cold weather. As you use them, the plastic hardens in the cold and becomes ultra brittle. One push forward when cold causes them to break irreparably.

    2. Avoid the Buck Brothers planes from HD. Buck Brothers used to be a good brand about 60 years ago but the name was sold. Vintage BB chisels are good stuff. I believe they BB plane bodies are aluminum. Yes, there are vintage aluminum planes too but the don’t work all that well for many different reasons.

      Look for Stanley’s that are NOT the purple “contractor” grade. Unfortunately, they are manufactured to very low standards as are the Groz and Anant planes. More metal is good metal. Be a little bit picky about the condition and save yourself some work up front. Later on, as you decide what else you might want beyond a #4 and #5 you can take some risks on basket cases.

      Other reasonably good brands to find on the used market would be Sargents and Union. These would be in the over 50 year old catagory. I believe the Sargents were made by Stanley but there is so much inbreeding I can’t keep it all straight.

  5. Thanks for that Rich. That was the name. These and Anant planes never really had good press until Woodcraft wanted to sell them off and suddenly they espouse their virtues. Fact is they take a lot of imagination to get them close to taking shavings but it can be done. In the long term I wonder whether they are worth the tweaking because I am always left feeling like they are not worth the effort.

  6. I bought a Buck Brothers for my first plane, when I was just getting started in woodworking. Granted, I didn’t know much at the time about fettling, but that plane set me back a couple of years at least. Even after several hours of work on the sandpaper, the sole was extremely banana shaped. Nothing but a tool-shaped paper-weight.

    1. Gr8 info, thanks for that Eric. I have picked them up and put them straight back on the tool rack in The Home Depot several times. You really can’t go wrong with a good Stanley or Record smoothing plane because, as you know, they can be fettled and used for even the really finest work.
      The other wonderful thing is that there are enough already made for us back in the first half of the last century so we can still buy them at a really reasonable price. Within one hour they are peeling oak like a knife in butter. Love ’em.

  7. Oh, yes, I was talking about the new stanley planes. However, recently I went to a flea market a mile down the road and purchased a Disson C1 26″ 8 tooth cross cut saw. I don’t think it is very old. It had little wear but had a small kink in it 2″ from the front edge of the saw. $5.00
    I also got a 1″ ashley bench chisle. $0.50
    Last but not least I think it is a Stanley bench plane. Cast Iron bottom, everything above the bottom is brass and steel. The knob is a dull red. It measures 8″ long. On the back it only says made in the U.S.A. The blade is really dull and I will have to sharpen it. $2.00

    1. Doesn’t seem you can go wrong with any of that. Sorry about the kink in the Disston. Sometimes they will tweak out though. Can’t really lose anything by trying.

  8. I am an advocate of the Sheffield made Marples chisels and not the Chinese imports. It sounds as though these ,may be the older ones so they should be fine.

  9. I’d like to add one more argument for buying second hand tools. By getting out and meeting people, haunting 2nd hand shops, responding to Craigslist ads, and even asking sellers on Ebay questions you’re going to eventually meet some of the nicest people you’ve ever run across. Do yourself a real favor, don’t order everything new from some internet retailer. Start rubbing shoulders and shaking hands with the other people in this community. It’s worth your time.

  10. Hi Paul,
    I am having some difficulty understanding which size gouge I should get even after watching the videos and going through your book .
    Could you please specify.
    Thank you very much

    1. A number 5 sweep works well and the wider of say 1-1 1/4″ in wide. Sorry it was left out for some reason.

  11. I have had excellent luck with my #9 and #14 pre 1945 Millers Falls ( same as 4&5 Stanley) planes. Both required clean up and a new edge on the iron. They seem to be well worth the total $25 investment. Got to love flea markets

  12. Many years ago, I picked this hand plane out of my grandfather’s hoard of rusty tools. It is a cheap knockoff of a Stanley number 5. I’m really not sure why I did; a good one is not expensive. This one was worthless even when it was new. There is not even a brand or maker’s mark. The handle was busted; the sole looked like it had served as a framing hammer at one time. It has sat in my tool hoard for close to a decade now.

    Several weeks ago, as I was sharpening some garden sheers, the old plane caught my eye. I wondered if I could salvage the plane iron for something. It took some effort, but eventually the rust gave way; a razor sharp edge soon followed. I continued to resurface the cap iron, leaver cap, and frog. I fabricated a new pistol grip handle out of a scrap of oak. I began to get excited when the plane was producing curly shavings little more than 1/1000th thick – just like a carpenter a century ago.

    My excitement was short lived, however, as the board developed a graceful curve. I planed more; the curve got worse. “Great,” I thought, ” all this restoration work and now I’ve got a tool to make wooden bananas!” I measured the sole – 1 mm out of flat. This is a death warrant for old planes. I shut the lights off and went to bed – depressed.

    Many hours of grinding the sole flat are behind me now and while it is still 50 microns out, I am enjoying my new tool, the fluffy shavings and the dead flat surfaces it produces. I have learned that cast-iron, while much softer than steel, is still very tuff stuff. I have also learned that 1 mm is a vast distance to flatten on a plane and that no rational person would invest the considerable time required.

    So why did I bother with this? I could easily buy a quality plane already restored and claim that it came from my grandfather. No one would ever recognize the difference – trust me on that.

    The truth is that I found something special under the initial layer of rust. My grandfather used an electric pencil to mark his driver license number on one of the wings. I remember that electric pencil in the early 70s and his obsession with marking nearly everything he owned. I could polish that mark off, but then even in its restored state, this plane would truly be just another piece of junk; for me, it is priceless.

    And now you know the rest of the story.

    Thanks Paul.

  13. Recently I’ve been doing some research about Stanley handplanes and this is what I learned about the first Stanley handplane I ever bought. It was made between 1888 and 1902. In 1874, Stanley changed the shape of the casting where the frog sits from an H to a raised rectangle. Then, in 1888 he modified the raised rectangle by adding 2 grooves on the sides of the rectangle. This allowed the frog to slide into position before securing the frog screws. The raised rectangle on the one I own has these two grooves. I just recently got it to work well. First, I sharpen a lot better and second I moved the frog far back from the mouth (the mouth no longer get choked with shavings). I also replaced the pin that holds the lateral adjustment lever so its not so loose. It actually would fall off when I removed the blade for sharpening. I’m not sure if fixing the lever matters. Anyway, I have absolutely no experience in fixing handplanes and I’ve only been working with handplanes for almost a year. I wanted to post this because I’m learning that working with hand tools gave me enough confidence to start experimenting in repairing minor flaws of the ones I own. I’m also cutting my own saw teeth now. I like the feeling of buying old, cheap tools and knowing how to tune them up a little to make them work really well and better then the tools made today. I have one really expensive plane: a woodriver 4 1/2. My old Stanley cut smoother.

  14. Paul Over the last 6 months using your guidance and advice I’ve been gradually building up my woodworking tools, 98% of which I have been able to source on Ebay. But I must admit today I think I found my best value find to date on Gumtree and all for the princely sum of £20 and a 19 mile drive.
    An old record 9″ quick release vice. The chap said it was his dads brought in the early fifties or before. It has the design number RD664709 stamped on the front which again from what I’ve read indicates it is fairly old, but you can tell from the weight and the castings it is a quality piece of kit.
    There is no paint left on it but it works and I know with a bit of fettling to take off the surface rust, some grease to ensure smooth operation and it will outlast me and generations to come.

    Virtually all the tools I’ve bought need some work which is why they were reasonably priced. Watching your videos, showing not only how to bring back to life discarded tools but also maintaining tools, has given me the confidence to try it myself.

    Buying old tools and having to work on them to bring them up to scratch, is a great way of learning about a part of the art of woodworking, that is as important as learning to actually use the tools if you want to produce quality work.

  15. Hi Paul I can’t say thankyou enough for sharing all of your experience on the servicing and maintenance & restoration of old Tools. Seeing you work on some of the projects that you have done has been time spent watching your videos. I agree that buying second hand tools and breathing new life into them is the best feeling in the world. I can’t wait to start getting back I into working with one of the best meadiums in the world after you’ve finished it & no two pieces are ever the same
    I do look forward to seeing more of your videos many thanks for getting me back into woodworking after 30 years when the last time that I did anything that was any good take care regards steve

  16. I have built up a good tool kit ( too much really when you consider what they used to carry from job to job on foot ) by buying second hand . The fettling of old tools , chipped edges, blunt teeth etc is all part of this absorbing world. It is also a vital contribution to preserving resources.
    We need to learn these skills in order to understand how these tools should work.

  17. ***Price averaging ***
    Come on Paul you’re slipping back into Stockport Lingo, you should know there is only one T in set up lol

  18. Fun story: I had a problem with my York vise from Lee Valley. Thanks to Paul & friends, I was able to describe what went wrong and tell them to please remove the offending vises from their catalog until the Czech maker did the right thing and fixed the Quick Release function of their vises. They told me they would give me a full refund after I mentioned Paul Sellers’ name!

    That’s what I call great service. Thank you, Paul!

  19. Hi Paul, I’ve come across an old wooden- handled chisel of a kind that I’ve never seen before. It’s triangular. The back is flat. So is one side of the chisel, but the other side is concave. Is it some sort of dovetail chisel? If not, what was it used for?

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